It's not always easy playing a bad guy on TV, but actor Xander Berkeley has played a lot of them. The despicable Gregory on AMC's The Walking Dead has given him another major douchebag character to play, as well as provided a look into the depths of sci-fi fandom, said Berkeley during an exclusive interview with Syfy Wire.
Berkeley, a well- known character actor, has been in over 230 TV shows and movies, including 24, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Nikita, Being Human, Salem, Zoo and 12 Monkeys. AND V, The X-Files, Roswell, Apollo 13, The Outer Limits, The Tick, Apollo 11, Air Force One, Gattaca, The Twilight Zone and Jericho. AND he's done voice roles on Superman, Justice League, Teen Titans, The Batman, Batman: The Brave and the Bold, and The Spectacular Spider-Man. His newest film is Labyrinth, about the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious BIG.
Berkeley talked with Syfy Wire about playing a not-so-beloved character on The Walking Dead, why he thinks more of us are like Gregory than we might like to admit and his newfound love-hate relationship with doing sci-fi conventions.
What an awesome character Gregory is.
Thanks for thinking so (laughs).
Well, he's despicable and all that kind of stuff but he's complex and awesome. He considered killing Maggie. Hey, we got to hate him for that.
No, I didn't do it. I didn't do it.
No, but you almost did and you went off to talk to Negan's guys. So hey, we know what's in Gregory's murderous mind, or at least we think we do. Tell me about Gregory from your point of view.
Well, I like to think that we'll keep the audience guessing with Gregory. And one of the things that does make him entertaining and fun is that you can't quite be sure where he's headed next literally or figuratively. He does appear to be on his way somewhere there in the last episode that you saw him in, and he always seems to be headed somewhere a little other than what you expect.
And I ran into [a friend at an audition] and he was saying one of the things that he enjoys so much about Gregory is that he was established one way and then all the sudden he's going this other way. And he was wondering whether I had leaned in that direction and they had followed. He wasn't sure. That's an actor's perspective. Scott Gimple is so clearly in command of this thing and it's a compliment to me as an actor, I guess, if you think that I had any influence over that.
How did Gregory come about?
Scott has a great overview, and he and I had a great conversation when we first started to discuss the character, because I didn't know the show. In addition to being a actor, I'm a father of two young children and a painter and sculptor and have very little time for any discretionary activities like watching television. So I didn't know the show. I knew it was very popular and I had some friends that have been on it that I knew had great experiences on it.
But when I was given the list of descriptions of the character along with the sample scene, it was all so ... despicable, unseemly, irredeemable. And I was just "Wow. This guy is so douchey ..." And I can confess as a father to two young girls, seven and ten now, that having played a great many, dare I say, sh** heels in my day ... what put me on the short list to be considered for the role (laughs)? You can get pigeonholed so easily in this town. And I certainly have been because I was willing to sacrifice my vanity to play parts like this in the past, and I wondered about the wisdom of continuing to do so and further backing myself into that same corner.
So how did Scott convince you?
He described what was so fabulous about the community of the show and the family that the cast and the writers and crew have become, and even beyond to the fans. I'm so glad I made the decision I did, but one of the things that I was bartering for was, "Can the guy have a sense of humor at least? Be at least fun and entertaining to watch while he's being such a dick." I also did ask them, “What can I bring besides another antagonist? What do you feel like the show needs?” Just sort of brainstorming. Like, "What would you like?" And he was talking about, "Where did this guy come from? What would be the tone? I don't want to get further mired in the southern drama of it all. I want to avoid getting turgid." And I said, "Well, great. So let's open the window, let a nice cool breeze from the north come in and let it swirl around and shake things up a little bit when you're at Hill Top, when you're with Gregory."
And that's good. I like the idea of being the contrast, even at the risk of not necessarily fitting into the tone. I feel like I can find my way even if I'm being different. And that sounded exciting, the idea of an outsider kind of character in a way and even though he's running the show ... He's just out of touch with others and he's very in touch with himself in a weird kind of narcissistic way. Not really in touch with himself in the grounded sense, but just in a sort of self-involved way. And I think it's been really interesting to observe the phenomena of a character.
TV likes a hero. It likes a strong villain killing people. They like a victim who becomes empowered. And I noticed going to these conventions it's like this weird little popularity contest. People do not want Gregory's autographs. It's almost like soap opera culture where they confuse character with actor. And I haven't gone to a lot of these. This is very new to me, this whole realm. But I have been doing it long enough to where I can intellectually separate the popularity contest aspect of it, and go, "They don't like me."
Here is the thing that'll happen though. When Gregory is killed off at some point, which will likely happen to every character on The Walking Dead, you'll become beloved eventually. Twenty years from now people will still be talking about Gregory in the sci-fi community. They'll want your autograph then.
(Laughs) It's cool and fun, but it's a weird thing to go through because they'll be lined up around the block [for the other actors autographs]. They'll be camping out. It looks like getting tickets for the Rolling Stones when I was a kid, where they camp out till the box office opened. You get people on either side of you who aren't even there at their booth and there's lines around the block. And you're sitting there, and people come over and they're like, "Yeah, I just wanted to say hi." And I understand because who wants the douche-waffle's picture on their wall? Right now they just want to come over and say, "Why are you being so mean to Maggie?" And I go, "I don't write this stuff."
It's interesting you get blamed for that, isn't it?
Like, "Well, what are you thinking?” And I go, "I wasn't thinking. I don't write this stuff." (Laughs)
Looking at your list of credits, you have over 230 credits in movies and TV, including some huge ones like T2 and 24. The question really is there anything you haven't been in?
I know. Going to conventions, that's why this is such a jarring experience. I really thought when I finally did decide to do these things I was going to have people that remembered me from some of the 230 other things that I've done. And nobody does.
Oh, I've see you in everything that I've ever watched, I think.
You're a journalist. I'm talking about the people who go to these things, a lot of the ones I've been going to. It's a suddenly a new realm and I'm fascinated with it. Because when I started out in the theatre you come out after the play and you engaged with an audience that saw it. And in this world, I really don't have any contact for 35 years with the people that saw the work that I've done. And so in a weird kind of way it's an opportunity to step out of the bubble that you've been in and just have interactions with real people that watch things.
The dedication, the phenomena, the global phenomena of The Walking Dead is fascinating to me because in some cases it seems as though the people, especially the ones that save up to go to these conventions to meet these characters, are not necessarily the people that are savvy about film and a lot of other shows. A lot of them are people that their kids loved it that have just been introduced to this show and this is their obsession. And that's why it's been interesting and humbling [for me to go to conventions]. But I really love the community beyond that the whole lack of compensation on that front. The community of the other actors, I just love the idea. It's like this troupe, this ensemble. You get to travel around with them. We're all in London, and then we're in Chicago. And you go out at night with different combinations of the cast. And that's like Scott, I think at one level he has a love-hate, as I now have seen these conventions, because there seems to be a weird element in the whole picture.
We both love and hate our shows and the characters, and we're not afraid to talk about it.
Good. That's cool. It's interesting and new to me, so I am sorry if I'm talking about it too much.
Oh no, not at all. I think you've been on just about every show I've ever watched at one time or another. I recognized you from other stuff, but suddenly on The Walking Dead you were Gregory.
With a show like this, as I sort of knew with 24 on some level, I had done an almost deliberate, partially subconsciously, partially conscious, job of sabotaging fame/celebrity. I would always be the guy on the films that, I would notice on location suddenly everyone's walking to this one new person that has suddenly shown up, and I was like, "What's everybody talking to that person for?" And then I find out that's the PR person. "Oh." And I would just sort of drift away.
Two things. I always changed the way I looked as much as I could. I would add to the character. I always secretly wanted to be believed as the character in the story rather than having people think about me the actor. And so, when I reached this stage of the game with a show like this, you kind of know you're crossing the river. You're not as much prone to the type of issue if you were younger doing it, so it's a little safer. But I really wanted to draw out my anonymity as long as I could because that to me is the fuel. That's my muse, like studying people.
And I'm, as I said, a painter and sculptor, and I sit in cafes all over the world and draw people. And that has been my passion to study the minutia of diurnal behavior. People interact and I write down notes and I draw people and I make notes of what they say and their behavior and things like that. It's my research that I'm always doing as an artist and as an actor. And I just didn't want to give that up for celebrity where everybody would be coming over to you.
I've had too many friends that were really famous from way, way, way back and I know you become public domain on a certain level. You get the fame for your ego that is very satisfying and you get the huge paycheck and you get most importantly, access to great roles. My mother had two injunctions before I went out to Hollywood. One was, "Well, money is only a problem Honey, if you have too much, too little of it." I thought that was interesting. And she said, "Now fame, all I'm going to say is be careful what you wish for, you may just get it."
I think people will recognize you as Gregory, but you're a great actor. You're going to go on to other great roles at some point. And now you don't have to take on any more douchebags if you don't want to. (Laughs)
(Laughs) My grand finale, de la douchebag!
I know you can't tell us much at all about the Season 7 finale, but what can you tease us as far as what we have to look forward to?
I think I'm not really at liberty to divulge a whole hell of a lot. Maybe I should just say that Gregory had the good sense to get the hell out of Dodge before the sh** went down.
Well, he does have some survival instincts.
One of the little secrets inside of Gregory, is because as much as people want to imagine that they're heroes or the big bad, on one level or another, I think a lot more people would, at the end of the day, seek to save their skin rather than sacrifice themselves for another. And that's a strong theme with Gregory. Like, "Look, I want to live to see another day. I'd like to have another cocktail. And if I can get along with another pretty lady before the day is done, that would be excellent too. And so sue me, okay. I'm human."
If Gregory does not survive the finale, what do you want to say to fans?
Well, first of all, don't even consider that a possibility ... You'll look back and you'll see I wasn't such a big douche-waffle after all. I was a good guy. Like I said, I'm not a bad guy.
What are your hopes for Gregory as you go forth, assuming he does survive?
With the character of George Mason [on 24], he was a prick in the first season, but he inhaled airborne plutonium and was going to be dead by the end of the season. And that was the means by which he could have redemption and make up for a life misspent. But I don't know it is in the nature of the character of Gregory to redeem. He may just have inherent character flaws. So I'm not going to hold out hope on that one.
But what I will hold out hope is that I will continually be able to pull away new layers and show new colors and keep the audience constantly unsure of where I'm going to go next. One of his survival instincts is to keep adapting to whatever people want and need from him, and one of those things is going to be a certain element, even if it's a little sleazy snake oil huckster charlatan charm and humor. That's an element that we're not finding in other places as much at this point. So that will be a fun place to go with Gregory wherever he goes.
The Walking Dead Season 7 finale airs on Sunday at 9PM on AMC.